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Authors: Rafael Yglesias

The Wisdom of Perversity

BOOK: The Wisdom of Perversity
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Rafael Yglesias


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For Donna, who understands and heals

No Thanks

November 2007

Thanksgiving, Brian Moran was alone.

He had disposed of family obligations. At the Gotham Bar and Grill restaurant, he had treated his father to a midafternoon feast of squab and foie gras terrine, heirloom turkey with duck confit, sour-cherry stuffing, and potato puree cranberry compote. Dad had made fun of him for ordering butternut squash soup, no cream, as a starter and Greenmarket vegetables for his main course. When he passed on dessert, the old man pretended not to understand why spiced pumpkin cheesecake didn't qualify as vegan.

While walking home, he had called his late mother's sister in Santa Monica and promised Aunt Helen that he would see her when next he was summoned to LA, explaining for the one-millionth time that although he worked in the movie business he was hardly ever on the Left Coast.

Once safely alone in his apartment, following the advice of his shrink, he supplemented his daily dose of libido suppressor with a soupçon of Xanax, half a milligram, to help him endure this night of national gratitude. Once the sun set on a family holiday, like a vampire Brian yearned to satisfy his appetite.

Logistically it was hard to be bad on Thanksgiving. Depraved young women had their own dull families to attend to. Having the urge at all was discouraging. Still, he had reason to congratulate himself. He had been a good boy for almost a year. Six months since he had even felt tempted. The pills had worked. Until tonight. Would they work again tomorrow? Would they avail throughout the holiday season? Something about Christmas decorations inspired delinquency.

What he craved was excitement. Instead he turned on the sedative of his fellow Americans—television.

First CNN. Unfortunately there were no genuine tragedies to take his mind off his own slow-moving pathos. No ex–football star cutting his wife's throat. No twin towers pancaking. No ostracized teenager assassinating his entire class.

Then MSNBC. The experts were very excited the election was only a year away. But they conceded there was little suspense about the primaries: it would be politically correct Hillary versus someone boring like Romney. Couldn't even hope for Edwards against McCain—Eros versus Thanatos. He despaired of the republic. Despite the disastrous Bush years, the Democrats would find a way to lose in '08.

How about a movie? He tuned to HBO.

That was when his luck truly ran out.

They had scheduled a film directed by Jeff Mark, made a mere fifteen years ago but already a holiday classic:
Home for Chanukah.
He had to give the schmuck credit: Jeffrey had made a Jewish holiday as American as apple pie.

He shut off the boob tube and moved to his computer to check on e-mails. He was tempted to rely on the Internet for a secondhand version of what he pined for. Sadly, his therapist had declared porno also to be taboo, a gateway to misbehaving in the flesh.

He reread the opening chapters of his favorite novel,
Great Expectations.
Dickens was always a comfort, a man who understood childhood was the ideal soft metal for the permanent engravings of evil.

Drowsy from the pills, he went early to bed. Prone in the dark, the miserable facts were clear:
My friendships are a sham, my only pleasure forbidden, my salvation to never, ever be myself.
Brian Moran did not give thanks. He decided that tomorrow he would stop taking his medication.

Five Seconds of Grace

March 1966

to be a shiny-cheeked boy of enthusiasms, imbued with inexhaustible energy to pursue them and a generous impulse to share their delights with his nearest and dearest. In turn, he was profoundly grateful to anyone who provided a new excitement.

In 1966, Brian was especially thankful for an invitation from his best friend, Jeffrey Mark. Jeff had asked Brian to accompany him on a visit to his cousin Richard Klein, who worked for NBC in Rockefeller Center. The forty-two-year-old Klein was a vice president of marketing, able to promise the two boys a private tour of the television and radio studios.

Klein met them in the lobby, introduced them to Joe the security guard, and rode with them up to the eigth floor. There a reception area was shielded by a glass wall whose transparency was interrupted by three huge letters—NBC—the
bright yellow, the
sky blue, the
bloodred. Behind it was a receptionist wearing a single earphone and talking into a tiny mike suspended in front of her lips—had this been the extent of the tour Brian would have returned home deeply impressed. Klein then led them down a staircase, through double metal doors emblazoned with a warning—
—into a bare concrete hallway. Klein ignored Jeff's repeated honks, “Where we going?” while they passed through a series of double doors below confounding signs—
—finally crashing through a single door with an unilluminated red lightbulb suspended above the warning:
Klein held the forbidden door open for them to pass through. When they did, they discovered they were backstage in a television studio, facing a jumble of props. A swami's headdress, used in one of Johnny Carson's recurrent comedic pieces, immediately caught Brian's eye. “It's
The Tonight Show,
” he said, thrilled.

“Enjoy. I'll be back soon,” said Klein, stepping back, letting go of the soundproofed door. It whooshed shut.

“This way, boys,” someone called. They turned, amazed to see the rainbow-colored curtain of
The Tonight Show
being parted for them by a teenager with tight blond curls. He was wearing the uniform of an NBC page: red blazer with gold buttons, starched white shirt, navy blue tie, and neatly pressed gray trousers.

“Hi, Brian,” said Sam the page as he passed through, lifting Brian's eyes into a grin of brilliant teeth. He had met this smiling teenager only once before, six days ago last Sunday, at the same time he had been introduced to Richard Klein. Brian had climbed the two flights from his apartment to Jeff's earlier that morning, his usual routine on a weekend. They were three hours into a marathon game of Monopoly when the NBC executive and the page poked their heads into Jeff's bedroom to say hello. Jeff presented Richard as “my famous cousin, the vice president of NBC.”

“Famous,” Klein repeated and chuckled. “I'm
vice president, not
” He went on to introduce Sam as “my Little Brother.”

After they left, Jeff had explained, “Sam's a Jewish orphan. Cousin Richard is his Big Brother. You know, like in those dumb public-service ads. But that's for Catholic boys. This is the same, only it's for Jewish kids who don't have fathers.” Brian had asked what had happened to Sam's father. Jeff shrugged. Then he said, “For a Jew, Sam's very blond.” Brian knew immediately Jeff had borrowed that observation from his mother, Harriet. Whenever Jeff quoted her, he did an unconscious imitation of her voice, his nasal whine deepening to produce the rasp of her sarcasm. Harriet's singling out Sam's blondness for comment meant there was something about it worth mocking or criticizing, since she talked about others solely to belittle or excoriate. At the time, Brian had enjoyed puzzling over what was wrong with Sam's blondness. He liked mysteries because they promised solutions. The worst frustration of being a child—and sometimes it seemed to him childhood consisted entirely of frustration—was the profound mystery of grownup behavior.

But no mystery could distract from the awe he felt as he entered the studio stage and took the very steps that Johnny Carson walked five nights a week. Brian's entrance, of course, came unheralded. He was not greeted by the bellowing welcome of Ed McMahon, announcer and commercial pitchman, or the brassy flourishes of Skitch Henderson conducting
The Tonight Show
band, or cheered by a revved-up audience of out-of-towners. Although no one was there to see him, Brian looked down shyly, partly overcome by the expanse of empty seats pitched at him and partly to make sure that it was really his Hush Puppies striding onto hallowed ground. While staring at the stage floor, he noticed four small pieces of yellow tape laid down at unrelated angles. He knew from his father they must be Johnny's “marks” indicating where he should stand while delivering his opening monologue. Before he gave up acting full-time to take a teaching job at a specialty public high school for the performing arts, Brian's father, Danny Moran, had a lucrative one year stint as a philandering husband on the soap opera
General Hospital.
As a result, he never tired of explaining to his curious son how things were done on television.

“Wow,” Jeff said as he arrived beside Brian. “Look.” He pointed to the right.

Brian followed his friend's finger to a banal arrangement of furniture Brian thought of as a fabled kingdom. In true scale and color he saw what he had previously known only as pixels: Johnny's desk, an upholstered club chair for Johnny's guest, and a couch onto which the interviewees shifted after Johnny dismissed them.

“This is boss.” Jeff ambled over to the green-carpeted area of the set. He climbed up a step that raised it a level above the surrounding stage floor. He scaled this height casually, as if he belonged.
But Jeff doesn't belong, Brian thought. No eight-year-old boy has the right to mount Johnny's set.

Nevertheless Jeff invaded the sacred place with his awkward walk, fearlessly rambling about Johnny's desk, Johnny's swivel chair, and four potted plants arranged in front of a backdrop of a painted-on Manhattan skyline.

“Hey!” Sam shouted, waving at Jeff to get off.

“This is so boss.” Jeff settled into the upholstered guest chair, nicknamed “the hot seat” by a giggling actress Brian and Jeff had seen on one of the thrilling nonschool nights they had been allowed to stay up well past Johnny's monologue.

Panicked now, Sam let go of the rainbow curtain and skimmed on the polished sea in his loafers to Johnny's island, stopping short of making landfall himself. “Jesus! Get up. Don't sit there.”

“Why not?” Jeff complained in his most nasal, mewling infant tone.

“You're not allowed. Get up!”

Jeff honked at Brian. “Hey, Bri. Come over here. Sit in Johnny's chair. You be Johnny. I'll be the guest.”

“No,” Sam shouted. He pirouetted at Brian, red blazer twirling like an ice skater's skirt and ordered, “Stay there!”

Brian obeyed.

“Don't be a jerk,” Jeff said to Sam. “No one's here.”

Sam became a siren of panic: “Get up! Now! Right now!”

“Why?” Jeff complained. “You haven't given me a reason.” It was Jeff's particular gift, which would serve him well throughout his life, to be able to challenge the limits people wanted to impose, and seemed particularly eager to impose on him, without provoking rancor. He had called Sam a jerk, ignored his warning, disobeyed his order, and now demanded an explanation, which Brian thought ought to have earned him a blow on the head or at least forcible ejection from the hot seat, both of which broad-shouldered Sam could easily accomplish. Instead the page's knees buckled, palms flush in prayer. He pleaded, “Please . . . before somebody sees. Please get up.”

“Don't be such a scaredy-cat,” Jeff said, dismissing him with the back of his hand. “Cousin Richard said we were allowed.”

As far as Brian knew, Klein had said nothing about what they were permitted to do. Sam, however, was desperate to believe: “Dick really said you could sit on the set?”

Jeff nodded confidently, a quiet assertion that convinced Brian his best friend must be lying: if he really had permission he would have shouted it.

Sam buttoned his blazer, straightened his tie. “Okay,” he conceded. “But if somebody comes in, you'd better get up. Dick's not the president of NBC.”

“Come on, Bri!” Jeff called. “Get in Johnny's chair and interview me.”

Brian nevertheless checked with Sam for permission. The page nodded in resignation. “I'll watch the door. Just don't touch anything.” He punched the curtain to make an opening and disappeared behind its quivering colors.

“Hurry up!” Jeff ordered. “You pretend to be Carson. I'll pretend I'm Don Rickles. ‘Get over here, you hockey puck! What am I, chopped liver?' ” Jeff paused in his imitation of the rude comic to gag with laughter and self-applause. Rickles's insults were delightful to Jeff and Brian because they sounded obscene even when they weren't. Was “puck” really “fuck”? “Hockey puck” really “stupid fuck”? They couldn't be sure. Why would Carson tolerate, even in jest, being called a stupid fuck? Yet it required no imaginative leap to assume obscenities from the hideous Rickles. He was a gargoyle: nearly bald bullet head, squashed peasant nose, tiny vicious eyes of a foraging rodent. Certainly that was the thrill of Rickles as a guest. While spitting invectives, he swiveled his no-neck fleshy head from Johnny to Ed, occasionally including the audience as his target, who seemed to adore him anyway. Most tantalizing of all to the boys, Rickles perpetually flirted with the ultimate taboo—saying a swear word on television.

“Look at this,” Jeff said, back in character as Rickles, mocking Brian for standing indecisively beside Johnny's chair. “Look at the goy trying to sit. What's the matter? Scared the Jew left germs? What a hockey puck!” Jeff doubled over, choked with laughter of self-appreciation.

Accepting Jeff's casting, Brian sat in Johnny's chair, imitated the master's long-suffering smile, and delivered a Carson put-down: “It's always a joy, a real thrill, when they let you out for the week, Don. What are Sunnydale's hours these days?”

Jeff stopped laughing. “That's wrong,” he scolded. “That's not what Johnny would say.”

Normally Brian would have been stung by this criticism, but he was overcome by the bliss of floating on Johnny's chair. Although he had released his full weight on it, Brian hadn't sunk at all. He was borne aloft, a king on a throne. And there was more treasure for Brian to discover while seated behind Johnny's desk: he spied a shelf, built where normally there would be a drawer, shielded from the prying eyes of the camera and studio audience.

Meanwhile Jeff was correcting him. “Right? How do they know Sunnydale is a nuthouse unless you say it? You have to say ‘What are the funny farm's hours these days?' ”

Brian pointed at Johnny's desk, widening his eyes, an urgent pantomime of alarm. Here was the proof eight-year-old boys shouldn't be allowed on Johnny's set: he had uncovered a whopping grown-up secret, the hiding place of a star.

“What?” Jeff said. He didn't rise from the hot seat and come around to see for himself. “What are you pointing to?”

“Hurry up and look,” Brian whispered.

“What is it!” Jeff jumped up and stepped away from the desk, distancing himself from whatever grisly object Brian had found.

Brian insisted: “Just look.”

Jeff asked plaintively, “Is it a spider?” He had a squealing fear of spiders, odd for a New York City boy. Although cockroaches were plentiful, spiders were almost unknown.

“No!” Brian shouted. “Look!”

“Jesus, lower your voice,” Jeff complained. He lurched forward, then hesitated by the corner of Johnny's desk. “You sure it's not a spider?”

“It's a secret shelf,” Brian resorted to a stage whisper. “Look.” Brian pushed his chair away to make room.

Jeff kneeled, peering into the hiding place. Brian leaned in. Together they inspected its shadows. They discovered two precious items: a coffee mug and a glass ashtray. Jeff reached into the darkness—“No,” Brian objected—and drew a royal blue cup into the light. “Put it back,” Brian pleaded.

Jeff dipped his nose into its cylinder and sniffed.

“Put it back,” Brian repeated.

“Here,” Jeff thrust it at him. “Smells funny.” Brian reluctantly accepted the mug. Jeff took out the ashtray. “He smokes?” he asked the empty seats. “I've never seen him smoke.” He bumped Brian's shoulder. “You ever see him smoke?”

Holding Johnny's mug had entranced Brian. He understood this was trespass, sitting in Johnny's chair, fingers curled about Johnny's cup, and yet he felt at home. Briefly the child Brian had an hors d'oeuvre of the paradox that would become the main course of his adult life: how could he feel at once so comfortable and so out of place?

“I've never seen him smoke,” Jeff declared. He returned to the hot seat, cradled the heavy glass ashtray between his legs, and stared pensively at a prism of colors dancing across its surface. “He can't use this. We'd see the smoke.” He sat up, inspired. “What's that smell of ?” Jeff nodded at Johnny's mug.

Brian put the mug down. He gripped the desk's edge, braced as if the odor might blast him, then bent over the cup's empty well. He paused to glance at Jeff and wink mischievously (as Johnny would, to involve his audience) before taking an elaborate whiff. “Milk?” Brian joked.

“Cut it out! Is it booze?”

Brian didn't think he had ever heard Jeff, or anyone in real life, say “booze.” It was the kind of word Jimmy Olsen might say on
or a gangster on
The Untouchables.
Jeff was right, though—must be booze. Otherwise, why hide the cup? Brian cleared the air several times with his hands and gradually lowered his nostrils over the mug. Brian inhaled noisily, nodded in solemn deliberation, and delivered another punch line: “Yoo-hoo?”

BOOK: The Wisdom of Perversity
6.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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